News | Social Movements / Organizing - Participation / Civil Rights - Southern Cone Understanding Why Chileans Rejected the New Constitution

Poor organization on the Left, fake news on the Right, and a chaotic campaign laid the groundwork for a disappointing setback

[Translate to en:] Ein Banner an einer Wand mit Graffiti wirbt für die neue Verfassung. «Apruebo un Chile para el futuro» - Zustimmung für ein Chile der Zukunft - steht dort in großen bunten Buchstaben.
The banner promotes the new constitution with the phrase "Apruebo un Chile para el futuro" (approval of a Chile for the future). CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

For the first time since the reestablishment of democracy in 1990, Chile held an election in which participation was mandatory. Over 13 million people — more than 85 percent of eligible voters — went to the polls on Sunday, 4 September to decide the fate of the document that would have replaced the constitution written by Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The “reject” vote prevailed nationwide — even in the big cities, which had been a beacon of hope for activists of the “approve” campaign.

This text was written collectively by the staff of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Buenos Aires Office

Translated by Andrea Garcés and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The results of the two constitutional plebiscites show that the Chilean people do not want to continue living under Pinochet’s constitution, but do not want this new constitution either. The time must soon come to discuss the next strategies and battlegrounds for the popular movement, and to start analyzing this outcome in a context marked by the rise of the political Right and continuous distrust of institutions, as well as the consequences for Latin American politics more generally.

It is impossible to come to any definitive analysis or conclusions about the impact of the vote, or about the final outcome of the process. However, there is little doubt concerning the renewed relevance of the current government’s course of action in light of the claims and demands enshrined in the spirit and the text of the constitution proposed by the Constitutional Convention.

Mistakes and Failures

The victory of the “reject” option confronts us with the imperious task of reviewing the failures of the process and the constitutional debates, which — due to the mistakes of some and the eagerness of others — were locked behind closed doors; of the political dynamics of the Left, which was once again divided, while the Right maintained a united front; of the government led by Gabriel Boric, who, besides being absent as an electoral pedagogue, harmed the campaign for approval with his idea of “approve in order to reform”; and of political conditions in Chile itself, marked by a growing economic crisis with an unprecedented surge in inflation, currency depreciation, disinvestment, and indebtedness.

It is also crucial to understand the strategy adopted by the right after the May 2021 election of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, which exposed the crisis in the traditional parties, as indicated by the election of outsiders who were either independents or members of grassroots organizations. At the time, the Right saw this as an opportunity and a sign of its own weakness. It chose not to challenge the Convention’s debates, but rather to work meticulously to undermine and delegitimize both the Convention and the constitutional process, creating a complex climate of distrust and disillusionment.

The creation of a Constitutional Convention, rather than a Constituent Assembly, limited the possibilities for real, open, and broad participation by the Chilean people in the drafting of the new text. What began with huge debates in hundreds of heated popular assemblies scattered throughout the country ended up confined to one venue in the centre of Santiago. As a result, the people’s understanding and knowledge of the new constitutional document was severely limited, creating the perfect scenario for the Right to overwhelm the public with its rejection campaign.

Despite the difficulties and debates, the constitutional document nonetheless became one of the most innovative of its kind in terms of political democratization, thanks to the influence of feminism and environmentalism and the plurinational democratization of political institutions. However, the lack of political structures at the national level and a very demanding process isolated the debates among constituents, which were contested from inside and outside the Convention.

The outcome reflects the weakness and loss of legitimacy of both the government and the constituent process itself. Boric’s reform proposal challenged the draft before the polls on Sunday. The Right succeeded in linking the constitutional process to the government, so that the election was also seen as a message to the government.

Another important factor was the lack of an educational process led by the state to explain the text of the new constitution and debate its contents. An effort to disarm the intense campaign of false rumours was needed, both in the media and on the streets, to counter the narrative of the “reject” camp. Its campaign, which started early on, deployed a range of fake news targeting issues that most Chileans care about, such as the fear of losing their homes, savings, and security.

The media offensive invested the constitution with a radicalism that did not match the actual text. It took shots at targets that most people are sensitive to, issues that were easy to understand and fear. The “approve” campaign, on the other hand, only began in the last few weeks and was on the defensive, traveling to all the regions to dismantle the narrative established by the “reject” camp.

We Won’t Give Up

That said, we must not underestimate Chilean society by believing that there is an almost direct link between right-wing discourses and the rejection of the constitution. The people are not to be blamed. The people have agency, but what happened with the Convention — the violence, the maximalisms —made it harder to achieve general acceptance. Consolidating a process that allowed people to identity with the draft of the Constitution proved to be impossible.

The discontentment among the supporters of the new constitutional document is vast, as is the need for organizing, political discussion, and collective building left by the constitutional process in Chile. There is now a new document, which can be improved but is sufficient as a political agenda.

The social uprising of 2019, the 2020 referendum in which 80 percent of the population voted in favour of a constituent process to draft a new constitution, the victory of Gabriel Boric, and the expansion of progressivism and the Left in various regions of the country, and a Constituent Convention with gender parity and an indigenous woman as its first president show that we are witnessing a transcendent and transversal process with demands for change and structural reforms.

This is the Chile of the last few years. It is hard to imagine that the people who brought about this scenario are going to give up their demands. We have come a long way and the door to a new Chile is still open.